Your recourse if you have been raped

My friend R. was raped many years ago. It was not a story with any gray areas. She was walking home from work when a large man grabbed her, beat and choked her, tied her up with duct tape, locked her up, and raped her dozens of times over the course of days. She eventually escaped and reported what happened as soon as she was able. The man was caught, convicted, and sent to prison.

She kept it a secret when it happened. She didn’t say anything until the day her story came up much later in the news, and she heard some women discussing  . . . her.

Not the rapist. Not the rape. They were discussing her — what she had been wearing, what her sexual history was, what she had been wearing, why she had been in that neighborhood, what she had been wearing, whether she had fought hard enough to get away, and why she hadn’t gone to the police sooner. Why had it happened in the first place? What should she have done differently? What had she been wearing?

And how do we know she’s even telling the truth?

I knew this woman. A gentle, generous, self-effacing human being, a lover of babies and kittens, honest to a fault. The women who wanted to talk about her skirt length didn’t know any this, because they didn’t know her. All they knew was that she had been raped.

And that in itself was a reason not to believe that she had been really raped. It must be her fault somehow. How do we know? Well, she says she was raped, and we know what kind of woman says a thing like that.

Bill Cosby’s attorney knows full well this is how people think, and he’s banking his entire defense argument on it.

Cosby is accused of drugging and sexually violating Andrea Constand. Constand is the only alleged victim in this case, but she is one of over sixty women who have publicly accused Cosby of sexual assault. As the accusations have filtered in over the course of decades, literally every circumstance surrounding the accusation is used against the alleged victim.

Last time Cosby was in the news in 2014, I compiled a list of arguments I heard over and over again — arguments that made me wonder if there was anything a raped woman could say, any way she could respond, any action she could take, that would make people believe her, or even give her the benefit of the doubt.

Here’s what I learned:

  • If you tell the police you’ve been raped, it’s because you’re looking for attention. You should file a civil suit, instead.
  • If you file a civil suit, it’s because you’re looking for money, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, that shows you don’t have a case, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you tell someone right away, that shows suspicious presence of mind, and proves that you engineered the whole thing to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, that shows a suspicious lack of urgency, and proves that you are making up the story for no reason other than to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, it shows that you don’t need the money and are just doing it for attention, because people love the kind of fabulous attention they get when they accuse someone of rape, especially if that person is popular or powerful.
  • If you do file a civil suit, it shows that you want the money so badly that you don’t mind getting all the horrible attention that no victim in her right mind would want to get, especially if the alleged perpetrator is popular or powerful.
  • If you’re the only one who accuses someone of rape, it shows that your story is unbelievable.
  • If lots of other people make similar accusations, that is suspiciously orchestrated, and shows that your story is unbelieveable.
  • If you were in the same room with the person who raped you, that shows that you are just as guilty as he is, because you’re in the same room with a rapist, and who would do that?
  • If the person you’re accusing of rape is rich, famous, or powerful, then that shows that you’re just looking for attention, and it never happened.
  • If the person you’re accusing of rape is rich, famous, and powerful, that shows that you should have known he is a rapist, and you wanted it to happen.
  • If you tell someone right away, they will assume you’re lying.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, they will assume you’re lying, because you didn’t tell anyone right away.

If you tell, that’s a count against you. If you don’t tell, that’s a count against you. If you speak alone, that’s a count against you. If you speak as one of a crowd, that’s a count against you. If you sue, that’s a count against you. If you don’t sue, that’s a count against you.

If you tell someone that you’ve been raped, it probably didn’t actually happen the way you said, and even if it did, it was your fault in some way, and you should have realized that it would happen, and there is no particular reason anyone should believe you, and if you think the rape itself was painful and humiliating, just wait till you see what you’ve got coming next, when you try to tell someone.

So why didn’t you tell someone sooner?

Clearly, because it didn’t happen. There can be no other explanation.

What I’ve learned is that if you’ve been raped, your only real recourse is not to have been raped. Because anything and everything you do from that moment forward is evidence against you. The deck is stacked against you as a victim because you are a victim. They very moment you even breathe the word “rape,” that’s evidence in the minds of many that no such thing happened, and anyway it was your fault.

Your only real recourse is not to have been raped.


Photo by dilettant:nikki via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A portion of this post originally ran at the National Catholic Register in 2014. 

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34 thoughts on “Your recourse if you have been raped”

  1. I agree with this blog post. I hope that is not forgotten when I say that the link to the article re: Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghmeshi is misleading because he was acquitted of rape. I am not defending him. I’m not saying I know he’s innocent. He strikes me as slimy. But his acquittal is important information. And yes I understand Simcha’s point is not one of guilty or innocence so much as of how rape victims are treated. Still the man was found innocent and that counts for something.

  2. I hesitate to comment, because I don’t think I have any experience that relates to the subject of the post, except negatively: I have never been around people who talked like that about rape victims. I’ve lived all my life in large metropolitan areas of Texas, I’ve spent a lot of time with Catholics and evangelicals, and I’ve simply never been around victim-blamers. I don’t think I live with my head in the sand . . . possibly I have heard comments like that in passing and never gave them a moment’s attention since they struck me as beneath contempt.

    How the media treats such victims, however, is obvious for all to see, and I think Simcha describes it pretty well.

    1. You haven’t been paying attention. I have lived all my life in Texas, with Catholic in-laws, and what I learned from them about the Catholic view of women makes me think my husband’s family would be excellent recruits for ISIS.

      1. Ok, Karen, I thought I had nothing to say on this topic, but I agree with Leah Joy. I also have lived in Texas, for almost 40 years, and I’m Catholic and a lawyer, and I do not have Catholics around me whose view of women is so negative as you suggest. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention either?

  3. I would just want to point out, your friend’s rapist was convicted by a jury. So whatever two ill-informed women thought, justice was served (at least as well as it could be served in a rape case). What disturbs me about this article is its conclusion: Your only real recourse is to not have been raped. I would rather conclude that your recourse is to report it as soon as you are able to, and fight for justice. For whatever people may think, you have some chance at a measure of justice and doing a great public good by having a rapist who would likely rape again put away.

  4. The discussion your friend overheard makes sense, in the same way that all the yelling about that gorilla story a year or so ago made sense: we all want to feel safe and be assured that, whatever the horror story is, it won’t happen to us or our loved ones. So there must be some way to blame the victim or blame the parent or whatever. Doesn’t make it easier on the victims, but it makes a certain amount of psychological sense for everyone else.

    Sometimes, of course, there is something to be learned (hence the ordinary safety precautions we send our daughters to college with; no sense feeling utterly helpless against *all* threats), but sometimes life is just unfair and people are just evil and there was nothing to be done except for the evil person to choose differently.

    1. I think that’s definitely part of it.

      People blame the victim in part because it gives an illusion of control for themselves. We look for an explanation or a cause that’s theoretically within our control.

      But it’s suspicious that we don’t seem to do this for other kinds of crimes…at least, I can’t think of any.

      In Australia we had a spate of “one punch” attacks where people were being punched in the head without warning at bars/pubs. Being hit without seeing it coming, the victims often suffer severe injury, compounded by falling to the ground. There were a couple of deaths, and huge public outcry. At no point did anyone say “they shouldn’t have let their guard down” or ask “what did they do to provoke the attack?” let alone “they shouldn’t have been out drinking in the first place.”

      It’s a stark contrast.

  5. And it’s not just the thug/sex addict hiding in the alley. Statistically, the greatest source of unreported rape comes from “marriage”.

    I felt my blood boil when I read in Dr. Gregory Popcack’s blog yesterday that a priest gave a woman the advice that she had an obligation to have sex with her cheating husband (and was part of the problem if she resisted). (Popcack told her that NO, this was not the case.)

    Those who support Tradition (with an extra big capital T) would insist that her marriage was sacramental if a Catholic priest waved his wand over them.

    Pope Francis made the very good point that ultra “upstanding” people who offer people a repressed world view often live duplicitous lives. It shouldn’t surprise us, but it always does.

  6. Rape is real. Victim shaming is definitely real. At 18, I found that out the hard way. I figured if my best friends who knew me thought it was my fault, what was the point in going to adults or authorities? And I never went to anyone else. I became one of a vast statistic of unreported sex crimes.

  7. So many good points here. But when are we going to admit that the Catholic Church’s seething obsession with female sexual purity contributes in part to this tendency to put a woman’s character on trial? Catholics create this culture. It seems disingenuous to then act shocked that it exists.

    1. I wouldn’t agree that the Catholic Church has a “seething obsession with female sexual purity” but rather that there are *some Catholics* who do. More to the point, those Catholics who have such a single minded and singly sexed obsession are not following Catholic teaching on charity or sexuality. The Church’s understanding of sexuality has everything to do with natural law, human biology and physiology, human psychology, and not nearly as much to do with actual theology as most people think. Yes, there is in fact, a theology involved (one of the best understandings of this is a series of homilies, speeches, and talks given by Pope St. John Paul II which have been compiled and are called The Theology of the Body), but that theology springs from natural law, human biology, etc as I mentioned above. This understanding of sexuality applies across the board to men and women, single and married, and celibate priests and consecrated religious alike.

      I do agree that the tendency of some Catholics (and a whole hell of a lot of non-Catholic Christians [ask me how I know this]) to be seethingly obsessed about female sexual purity (and female modesty too) has contributed to this attitude toward rape and sexual assault victims. I just wanted to point out that this obsessiveness isn’t something that the Catholic Church promulgates. What you see as something that the Church is teaching is really a particular group of Catholics who have taken the teachings of the Church on sexuality, pulled those out of broader context of the overall moral teachings of the Church, and have twisted them in their isolation into something that just isn’t Church teaching at all.

      Is this a problem? Absolutely. Having said that though, there are a LOT of Catholics who are totally shocked by this blaming the rape victim because they DO understand the teachings on human sexuality and they understand the many social justice teachings and teachings on charity. I think it is right and good for those Catholics (and Simcha is one of them) to be shocked, frustrated, and angry. We do know that there are problems with certain groups of people in the Church and that those problems sometimes lead to this kind of thing, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be shocked by it at the same time. It’s not disingenuous at all to feel shock and anger at something that we recognise is true. Additionally, feeling this kind of shock and frustration often leads to change over time through good people speaking out about it, writing about it (as Simcha has here), and getting involved in changing it.

    2. “the Catholic Church’s seething obsession with female sexual purity”
      Wow, what world do you live in? This seems more than a little disconnected from reality. The only seething I see is your resentment and desire to blame people you dislike for societal problems.

      “Catholics create this culture. It seems disingenuous to then act shocked that it exists.”
      American culture was historically Protestant and the influential elites who manufacture culture now are nearly all atheistic or agnostic (e.g., changing people’s minds on gay marriage in less than a decade). To blame a group for a problem created by a culture which is hostile to their beliefs is kind of weird. What’s next, blaming Mormon’s for domestic violence? Blaming evangelicals for the sorry state of our public schools? If you want to blame people for societal-wide issues, then you need to look at the people in power.

    3. When I left my husband, after a physically abusive incident, the priest, in confession, told me that I had gone through My Lent, suffering from emotional abuse and now this new physical abuse, it was time for my Easter celebration. I should get myself and my children, to a safe place and stay away from my husband. No “Old Traditions “ preached.

  8. This is a really hard topic for starters because in our justice system people are innocent until proven guilty. Sex, by its very nature, is a very private act with lots of secrecy, even for burner/hippie types. It is really, really hard to prove rape beyond a shadow of a doubt, which is the typical standard of evidence. I sat on a jury for a rape case once and saw how divided these things can be, with other women often scrutinizing the woman’s claims harder than the men. It can be an odd dynamic.

    That doesn’t justify people looking for ways to blame your friend and women they don’t know. However, this type of issue cuts both ways, and I’ve seen other people presume a man’s guilt when they shouldn’t. In fact, it’s happened to me.

    My ex-wife has a serious mental illness. Before it got bad enough that she spent time in a psych ward, she accused me of all sorts of horrible abuse both in public to friends and acquaintances and to the court system in an attempt to get me out of our kids’ lives. By some miracle her lawyer didn’t show up to the hearing and she caved under questioning, admitting to perjury. If she hadn’t, I would almost certainly have been put under an order of protection and had severely limited access to my kids. When it comes to DV cases, judges typically don’t make sure there is a wit of evidence before removing a man’s right to bear arms, hunt, etc. All it takes is an ex’s accusation because no judge wants to be the one who didn’t slap a restraining order on a guy only to have him go out and beat up the gal later. That’s front page news in many towns. There were never any charges for my ex admitting to perjury and abusing the legal system. There never are, which is partly why I know so many men who’ve gone through something similar. In spite of what happened, there are some people who still believe my ex and won’t let their children play with mine anymore, completely cutting them off when I got full custody due to my ex’s mental health and eventual CPS issues.

    This is the context in which one needs to understand people’s reactions to rape. It doesn’t justify them, but false DV accusations are extremely common: almost everybody knows a guy who has been falsely accused of DV in a contested divorce. Throw in very high profile rape accusations like the Duke LaCrosse team and University of Virginia Rolling Stone accusations, and it creates an environment where many people are prone to scrutinize the accuser. Given the emotions involved based on one’s past experience, people often believe the accuser or accused instead of withholding judgment. It’s just a really hard topic for anyone to be truly neutral on.

    I wish your friend well. That’s a tough thing to heal from.

    1. I think your comment was very carefully and thoroughly written, to include relevant details and explain what exactly you meant.
      That said, I am left with the impression that you do not understand that by far, by a very huge large enormous margin, women and girls do not get justice for the sexual crimes that they suffer. And they suffer those sorts of crimes to a degree that is much, much higher than men and boys.
      If the justice system in the US in the 21st century (and perhaps the larger Western world) has swung in a direction where it is harder for the accused to be given the benefit of the “innocent-until-proven-guilty” default that we supposedly operate by, that in itself is telling. Just think what it was like in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, when a woman accused a man in the US and he was “innocent until proven guilty.” No DNA testing, no rape kit, just her word.
      I am truly sorry for the pain you suffered, and happy for you that the case against you did not proceed any further and your reputation was preserved.

      1. Claire and Anna Lisa,

        You both seem to be under the false impression that women outnumber male victims of domestic violence by an incredibly large margin. There are dozens of studies which I could point to which contradict that assertion, but I’ll start with one. If you take the time to read this University of New Hampshire study, you will have a much better understanding of the situation.

    2. You’re wrong on domestic violence statistics, as well as the standard in a trial (beyond a “reasonable” doubt, behind a shadow of a doubt would be higher, near impossible standard).

      1. He didn’t list any specifics, only said false accusations were common, which is true on both sides of ugly divorce battles. Also, “beyond a reasonable doubt” is what the trial standard is supposed to be, but it’s not that hard to get stuck on a jury with people who don’t grasp the difference between real-life evidence and the “ta-da!” of crime show evidence on tv.

    3. You sound like a really nice guy.
      But you admitted to absolutely nothing.
      And THAT makes me suspicious.

      1. Gee, anna lisa, I hope you’re just trying to make Simcha’s point. If this were a female victim of domestic abuse, would you be suspicious if she didn’t say she was an abuser too? I used to work at a residential home for troubled kids and it did sometimes happen that kids would make false abuse accusations. There was nothing to admit, because nothing had happened and, luckily, the organization was interested in truth and didn’t think that an innocent person insisting he or she was innocent meant he or she was guilty.

        1. Anna,
          There is no spouse that can claim that he/she danced the Tango perfectly while only he/she made bad moves. I wanted to see the slightest indication of humility there. I see that as a red flag–EVEN if most of the fault lies with her.
          A broken family is a broken family is a broken family.

          1. Sure, but there’s a big difference between saying you aren’t perfect (no one is) and saying that you’re guilty of abuse. He wasn’t so he was hardly going to say he was in court or here. He was in the same situation I mentioned with the troubled kids: accused of a life-ruining crime, something that everyone will assume must be true or why would the accuser say that? It’s a truly terrifying place to be in.
            That’s what Simcha’s original post was about: sometimes evil people do evil things and it really isn’t the victim’s fault (even though she isn’t perfect). The victim shouldn’t have to make sure to find fault with herself (or himself), even though there are some cases where the person does see ways where the situation might have been avoided “if” and tries to educate others about avoiding that thing (like “don’t accept an opened drink”).

        2. Anna,
          (this reply system is a bit funky so I’m answering up here).

          a. What he posted might be 100% true, but marriage problems are apples so to speak and women being assaulted by strangers, –oranges. Claire addressed my biggest reservation about why he was inserting his marriage debacle into the mix.

          b. Yes, two-year-olds commit explainable drive-by “crimes”. But they are two, and haven’t attained the age of reason, so they aren’t even crimes. sigh.

          1. Anna Lisa,

            Maybe we are talking about two different things. You are right that domestic violence and rape within a marriage aren’t the same as rape by a stranger. However, rape and violence by a stranger is really rare compared to those things happening by someone the woman knows. When we are talking about women victims being believed, we are almost always talking about a woman who is on the receiving end of violence from somebody she knows. I can grant you that there is much more skepticism when the victim knows the perpetrator. Do you not think that is ever a problem? You are sure talking like you don’t. I think it is, but the primary reason isn’t the one pointed to in the Simcha post above: the reason is that there are an awful lot of false DV accusations and the public doesn’t know how to deal with this issue in an impartial manner (on either side).

            Also, you never addressed the University of Virginia fraternity and Duke LaCrosse rape cases in which false accusations of rape by a stranger were levied. Both of those cases received enormous amounts of coverage (on par with the Bill Cosby case when they came out). In spite of both turning out to be patently false, neither woman making a false accusation and publicly destroying the men both locally and in national media was ever prosecuted. This is what women are up against: a society that doesn’t know how to deal with these issues because it is really dang hard to figure out the truth. The media has lied so much about high profile cases, it can be hard for some people to trust what they say when there is a real victim, even in cases of rape by a stranger.

            So, can we at least agree that there are some good reasons why people are skeptical, even in widely publicized cases of rape by a stranger?

            Of course, it is also hard for some people, like you, to trust male victims of false accusations like me in domestic cases. That’s understandable. I honestly don’t give a rip what you think of me personally. To be frank, you make it easier to make my point by being such a good example of someone who dismisses domestic DV incidents/accusations as “marital problems,” not realizing that the vast majority of women who aren’t believed face the exact same reason. Why believe a woman victim who is making her “marital problems” public? The vast majority of the time, domestic violence and rape is committed by someone the victim knows very well. It is the widespread dismissal of these accusations by friends and strangers that most women find so hurtful.

            Do you not think that female victims of date rape or domestic violence should be believed? Do you think the first thing strangers should say to them is
            “You sound like a really nice guy.
            But you admitted to absolutely nothing.
            And THAT makes me suspicious.”

            You sure are acting like it.

      2. Anna Lisa,

        Thanks for making my point for me, that men and women are both victims of a mindset in which people are suspicious of victims based on their past experience, and the issue is not one sided.

        I’m not going to get into all the details of my situation on here, but I will say this: the courts gave me full physical and legal custody with my ex-wife getting limited supervised visits with the kids. Do you have any idea what needs to take place in order for that to happen? Our court system is incredibly biased toward women when it comes to children.

        The problem of false abuse accusations is real and far more pervasive than people want to admit because there are never any consequences for it. Getting real victims a fair hearing without cleaning up that problem is nigh to impossible. People are just too emotional and prone to pre-judging a situation based on their past experiences. It is extremely hard to remain neutral, especially when neutrality itself is viewed as being unsupportive of the victim (and can easily veer into that). These are really hard situations that push most people beyond their limits when it comes to empathy and discernment.

        1. There is a huge difference between a woman/man walking down the street that gets physically assaulted and a broken marriage.

          1. Anna,
            When you are brokering a knock-down-drag-out fight between two kids, it’s often discernible which one has the lion’s share of guilt. But when one of them (even the greater victim) says “I’m innocent.” –I know that in addition to the fight I have another problem on my hands.

          2. But sometimes my 2 y-o does just walk up to a sibling and bite him and run off.
            My parents had friends where the woman had a mental breakdown some years into the marriage. She wasn’t at fault for that – certainly her husband wasn’t either – but she was also a danger to be around, for her kids and for other people too (she, on a whim, threatened my mom’s life, just because the idea came to her when they were together and she could have easily done it).
            I sincerely doubt you would be expecting a female abuse victim who posted the exact same scenario to give reasons why the situation was her fault, just as you wouldn’t expect a rape victim (even if she were one of the married rape victims you mentioned in your other comment) to list reasons why it was her fault. Because it wasn’t.

    4. DCJ

      What world do you live in?
      Women are indeed capable of all kinds of terrible acts, but they are not know for how they hide in dark corners or under the cover of legal marriage to force themselves upon their husband so he’ll cough up the marriage debt.
      Congrats on taking over the comments though. Putting yourself and all male victims up there on par with the abuse victims of rape culture should make you a hero somewhere.

      1. Sorry I wasn’t clear with my 2 y-o example; I didn’t mean to say anything about the culpability of the perpetrator, just about the possibility of an entirely innocent victim, even in the often-gray area of sibling problems (Duggar case, anyone?)
        What I am not understanding about your comments here is why it makes your “blood boil” to read about that scenario of a priest asking a cheated-on woman to consider if she was at fault for her husband’s behavior, but you are insisting that a man whose children were endangered by his wife admit that it was really his fault. The only difference I can see is that one victim is male and the other is female. But abuse is abuse, even if women aren’t typically physically capable of “hiding in dark corners” to overpower men. So yes, male abuse victims are on a par with female abuse victims because *no one* deserves to be abused.

    5. I am a lawyer. The standard of evidence in a criminal trial is ‘beyond a REASONABLE doubt.’ It is not possible to prove anything beyond a ‘shadow of a doubt.’

      1. I know that (as I stated above) and so does anyone who isn’t a lawyer and merely pays attention; it’s just that there are plenty of people out there that don’t grasp that standard and it’s not exactly unheard of to serve on a jury with people who don’t get it and won’t convict unless it’s TV-show watertight evidence. Jury selection is supposed to help weed out those people, but that’s hardly fool-proof (not that anything is and it’s the best we’ve got.) Everyone’s coming into everything with their own history and biases and no one is ever totally impartial; if you’ve got a sympathy with one side due to your own history, your standard (sometimes unconsciously) will be different, either “beyond a shadow of a doubt” if you’ve got sympathy for the defendant, or “meh, sounds legit” if you’ve got a chip on your shoulder against the defendant (or for the prosecution).

  9. The examples we continue to have of this phenomenon are amazing (in a bad way). Look at what happened to DJT – the reporter who spoke out about being assaulted by him was slurred and then ignored. Look at the women who accused Bill Clinton of rape and assault – to this day they are referred to on national television as “tramps.” In both cases, the accusations comport exactly with what we know of the character of these men. Doesn’t stop the victim blaming, one bit.

  10. This is so, so true. And victim-blaming/shaming can be even worse in moral communities, as people subscribe to the ‘just world hypothesis,’ that individuals receive the outcomes they deserve, so the victim must have done something wrong. It’s a way for people to preserve their sense of safety in confronting the stark realities of human predation – particularly when the alleged perpetrator is powerful or popular, or a prominent member of the moral community.

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